Country Soul with Charles L. Hughes

COUNTRY SOUL Cover ImagePop South continues its conversations with book authors.  Today, our focus is on Charles L. Hughes new book Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South (UNC Press, 2015)Dr. Hughes is a Director of the Memphis Center   at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.

PS:  The main title of your book “Country Soul” comes from the term “country-soul triangle,” which you use in your book. Where did that phrase come from, and why is it so appropriate?

CH: I developed the term “country-soul triangle” to refer to a network of recording studios in Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. At legendary places like FAME and Stax, black and white musicians produced a wealth of classic recordings in the 1960s and 1970s. Each city had its own successful scene, of course, but I’m interested in exploring the many connections between them—sounds and players traveled back and forth between these three cities, leading the triangle to become a center of the era’s music industry and turning each city’s signature “sound” into an internationally-recognized symbol of quality. Musicians in the triangle recorded with a wide variety of artists, but they were most associated with country, soul, and their stylistic blends. So it felt appropriate to term it the country-soul triangle.

PS:  Who are some of the prominent artists who recorded in the country-soul triangle that you talk about in the book?

CH: The list of artists who recorded in Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and Nashville during this period is truly overwhelming. Even in a book like this, I could only scratch the surface. Still, I tried to discuss as many performers as possible. I talk about soul stars from Aretha Franklin to the Staple Singers to Joe Tex; country artists including Willie Nelson, Charley Pride, and Dolly Parton; and pop and rock artists ranging from the Osmonds to the Rolling Stones to Dusty Springfield. The artists who recorded hits in the country-soul triangle—whether homegrown artists or visiting stars—form a constellation that demonstrates just how significant Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and Nashville were to the era’s popular music. It’s really exciting to spotlight them in the book.

PS:  Although you talk about many of the famous artists who recorded in the triangle, you focus primarily on the behind-the-scenes musicians at these studios. Why did you choose this approach?

CH: These musicians were the most important reason for the triangle’s success in so many genres. Their versatility and efficiency made them some of the most in-demand players of their era, and they established Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and Nashville as places where a wide variety of artists could go to cut successful records. They were also central to the way that country and soul developed artistically and culturally—not only did they develop the actual music, but they established the genres as symbols of race and politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Relatedly, they also dealt with racial politics on the most concrete level, thanks to their ongoing collaborations in the studio. Whether they were well known (like Stax’s Booker T. and the MGs) or less famous (like the FAME Gang in Muscle Shoals), the musicians dealt with the complex realities of racialized sound and an interracial workplace on a day-to-day basis. The results weren’t always positive, and certainly weren’t always equitable, but they were pivotal to understanding their larger historical importance. For that reason, I found them to be the most illuminating people to anchor my discussions.

Charles Hughes author photoPS: Many readers of Country Soul will be familiar with the 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals. What is your own personal response to the film? What do you think it got right, and what else would you like fans of the movie to know?

CH: I really enjoyed Muscle Shoals, and I was particularly happy to see the Shoals musicians get their due credit for their significant role in shaping American popular music of the last 50 years. To see and hear them discuss their achievements, along with so many of the artists they worked with and influenced, was a welcome confirmation of their importance and a wonderful tribute to their accomplishments. On top of that, the film was filled with great footage and sounds, so—as a fan of the music—I was thrilled to watch it. At the same time, Muscle Shoals also reflects a common simplified narrative, particularly in terms of race, that I’m trying to complicate with the book. It presents the Shoals studios (particularly in the early days) as something of a utopia where race wasn’t an issue, but I discuss numerous racial conflicts and more broadly demonstrate that race was a central concern of the musicians working in the Shoals. Additionally, the film focuses largely on white men—most prominently FAME Studios founder Rick Hall—while marginalizing the accomplishments (and criticisms) of the many black artists who participated as both studio musicians and performers. (For that matter, many of the important white contributors got minimized too.) As I discuss in Country Soul, this reflects a larger tendency to credit white people as the visionary heroes and treat African Americans as passive or secondary participants. I not only discuss the historical roots of this narrative, but address its continuing implications.

PS: How did you get interested in this topic?

CH: I came to this story through the music. Country, soul, and their hybrids have long been among my deepest musical loves. From Dolly Parton and Charlie Rich to Otis Redding and the Staple Singers, I’ve realized that many of my favorite artists and recordings are products of the country-soul triangle. I also grew interested in the musicians and songwriters working behind-the-scenes, people like George Jackson, Dan Penn, and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who helped create so many great records, in so many different genres. As a historian of race and the South, I became fascinated by the existence of these interracial collaborations that existed in the heart of racial turmoil. I wanted to explore the story of how this occurred and try to illustrate these musicians’ importance to the broader story of race in the United States.

If you’re interested in hearing some of the music Dr. Hughes discusses in his book, he’s put together a playlist on Spotify.  Click playlist.  He’s also created a playlist on YouTube.

Memphis Ain’t Chicago: Reflections on Race and Southernness

aintchicagoPop South is pleased to introduce its readers to Zandria Robinson, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Memphis where she’s also an alumna. Dr. Robinson’s new book This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South delves into black southern identity in Memphis, Tennessee.  You should also peep her blog New South Negress where she extends the conversation on race, region, and culture she began in her book. (Note: This interview will also appear on this blog under “Porch Talk” as “This Ain’t Chicago with Zandria Robinson”.)

PS:  For the uninitiated, tell us about how you arrived at the book’s title “This Ain’t Chicago?”

The title is actually a direct quote from many of my respondents, black southerners I interviewed in Memphis over the course of five years. Initially I noted it as something that people said frequently, but did not immediately grasp its import. I thought that folks were responding to the fact that they thought I was from Chicago because I was attending graduate school there. Later, as respondent after respondent made this comment and gave me varied but similar reasoning about why “this” wasn’t Chicago, I realized they weren’t talking about me, or Memphis, or even Chicago. They were saying, the South isn’t the North; the South is qualitatively different from anywhere else. Once when I was talking to one of my advisors, Chas Camic, about my findings, I told him, “people keep saying, ‘this ain’t Chicago, this ain’t Chicago.’ He said, “sounds like a good title for a book.” And it stuck. It was also a convenient dig at the Chicago School of Sociology, recognized as the “founding” school of American sociology at the University of Chicago, which has dominated how we think about black life and urban studies for nearly a century. (But others like Earl Wright II have shown that actually W. E. B. DuBois founded the first American school of sociology at Atlanta University.) So “this ain’t Chicago” is like the descendants of those African Americans who never left the South, for Chicago or anywhere else, talking back to the descendants of those migrants who have made up the majority of the stories about black life in sociology since WWII, as well as talking back to scholars and others who have ignored the contemporary black southern experience.

PS: What do you mean by a “Post-Soul South?”

Dr. Zandria Robinson
Dr. Zandria Robinson

Post-soul is a term popularized by the cultural critic Nelson George and expounded upon by Mark Anthony Neal to delineate the contours of the cultural moment after the civil rights movement. For me, “soul” is a cultural shorthand for the music, art, and ideas in black culture between WWII and the assassination of King. King’s assassination is like a scratch across that long soul record that shuts down the party, and though the music began again, it did so with a new aesthetic influenced by the massive social and political changes that came about as a result of the civil rights acts, the deployment and then rolling back of affirmative action, the crack epidemic and mass incarceration, further disinvestment in black neighborhoods, and a host of other deliberate practices that sought to limit the rights of black folks in America. The art produced in and influenced by this context is “post-soul.”

While the South experienced the changes sweeping across all of America beginning in the 1970s—the effects of deindustrialization and globalization, the entrenchment of neoliberalism, suburbanization and destabilization in the urban core, etc.—the notion of a post-industrial, post-soul, or post-civil rights moment means something different in the place where rural patterns of government and industry prevailed, the blues was still being created and lived, and government officials had publicly declared segregation forever. Further, the legacy of slavery, evangelical religiosity, higher black-to-white population ratios, and the expansion of plantation power affected how southerners experience the historical and cultural moment after King’s assassination as well.

PS: Why do you believe Memphis is an ideal place for discussing the American South’s racial and regional identity?

As my colleague and sociologist Wanda Rushing argues, Memphis is “neither Old South or New South,” by which she means it doesn’t have a legitimate legacy of the Old South like your major slave ports on the eastern seaboard with their towering plantation homes and wealth, nor does it have the glitz and progressive shine of a bustling New South metropolis like Dallas or Atlanta. For me, Memphis sits at the intersection of soul and post-soul, rural and urban, civil rights, and post-civil rights. It is the site of the creation of some of the most important soul music ever, which is now sampled in the post-soul era all throughout hip-hop and R&B music and beyond, all over the world. It is symbolically, historically and geographically linked to the Mississippi Delta, which historian Jim Cobb has aptly called “the most southern place on Earth,” and the city is populated with country folks who make and are re-made by the southern urban landscape here. And it is a place where King was assassinated and today the African American infant mortality rate is amongst the highest in the nation. The social justice goals that need to be met here—addressing poverty, investing in children and human capital, eliminating health disparities, challenging environmental racism, amongst others—are directly related to the unfinished legacy of King. They also echo throughout the South, where negative outcomes abound for the most vulnerable groups. Essentially, Memphis is a place where you can examine snippets of “old” and “new” South as they collide with one another in urban space. It’s where the things that we popularly think make southerners southern intersect with the things that we popularly think make black folks black.

PS: Since this is a blog that examines the South in popular culture, how does your book engage with popular culture?

Big Boi and Andre 3000 from their album Stankonia
Outkast’s Big Boi and Andre 3000 from their album Stankonia

This Ain’t Chicago is really about my love affair with popular culture, and black southern popular culture in particular. In the middle of an analysis of some ethnographic data you’ll find gestures towards Outkast lyrics. At first, I set out to write an urban sociological text, one that inserted a southern city into the urban sociological landscape to shake us out of our disciplinary deference to Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. But my background in literary criticism, as well as the fact that it was in popular culture where the work on the contemporary black South was being done, meant that This Ain’t Chicago became much more about the relationship between people’s ideas and popular culture representations of their experiences. I take popular culture just as seriously as “data” as I take my respondents’ sentiments. In fact, it is black southern popular culture, and hip-hop in particular, that was doing the ethnographic work about the South when sociologists were not. Three Six Mafia, Gangsta Boo, 8-Ball and MJG, Arrested Development, Ludacris, T.I., Outkast, Nappy Roots—the list goes on and on—were giving us a visual and lyrical ethnographic analysis of the post-soul South through their music and music videos while sociologists were still talking about Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles and historians were talking about everything before King’s assassination. So popular culture is really a starting place for me in thinking through questions about racial and regional identity, and I bring analyses of hip-hop, film, and other popular culture artifacts to the fore in the book.

PS: What projects are you working on next that followers of Pop South would find interesting?

I’m working on a project about black southern bohemians, sort of poking at the whiteness of the notion of bohemians in the South (Austin, TX, Athens, GA, Asheville, NC) and the New York-ness of the notion of black bohemians. In particular, I’m thinking about how black southerners create and maintain bohemian cultures that manifest in art, music, photography, and other aesthetic practices. And I’m also thinking about how race and regional identity affect black southern bohemianism. André 3000 of Outkast is often seen as sort of the black southern bohemian as if he is an anomaly of some sort. But there are other examples in popular culture and certainly on local black arts scenes that demonstrate that for black southerners, bohemianism is a cultural and aesthetic response to the constraints of race, class, and region on black life that many folks employ. So, I’m exploring these ideas through the same sort of mix of ethnograpy and popular cultural analysis that This Ain’t Chicago employs.

Check out Professor Robinson’s interview with Dr. Regina Bradley for her series Outkasted Conversations:

Have Y’all Heard? Voices from the Southern Blogosphere

The Pop South Rooster Word Cloud

Writing posts for Pop South has been an enjoyable experience, and it’s also provided a means for connecting with the larger public about the ways in which the American South is represented in popular culture. This is especially important for folks like myself who work in academia, where our critics suggest that we exist in a bubble and are out of touch with the “real world.”

I, for one, have always wanted to burst that bubble and bridge the gap that exists between academia and the broader public. To put it plainly, I’ve long felt that I should be able to explain what I write about in terms that members of my family, who never went to college, can understand.

My work as a public historian–working for museums and writing exhibit text–helped me to bridge that gap. Today, my blog serves that purpose and not by “dumbing down” the intellectual considerations. A person doesn’t have to have a college degree to be smart, but I find that dispensing with the academic jargon that can separate “us” (the academics) from “them” (the general reader) is especially important in a blog whose purpose is to communicate about topics in a way that most people can understand and appreciate.

I’m happy to say that I am not alone here in the southern blogosphere, as equally like-minded folks are adding their unique take on the region and its culture. If scholars want to be relevant beyond the academy, and if southern studies wants the same, then we must take advantage of new forms of communication in order to reach the broadest possible audience.

I look forward to others joining the mix, because there’s plenty of room for new voices. For now, here’s an introduction to some southern blogs and bloggers whose writing I think you’ll enjoy:

Civil War Memory–So much of what is written about Civil War memory concerns the South and how memory of the war has shaped, and continues to shape, southern culture. In this long-running blog, historian and teacher Kevin Levin explores this topic with his readers by examining everything from new books, to popular media, to the never-ending divisiveness of the Confederate battle flag.

Cobbloviate–This is a blog hosted by James C. Cobb, Professor and Spalding Distinguished Research Professor and Spalding Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Georgia.  Dr. Cobb offers his own special take on the South and southerners and generally with a healthy dose of humor.

Field Trip South is the official blog of the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina. It is a feast for the eyes and the ears as the SFC shares the archival resources of its phenomenal collection of materials that explore “the emergence of old-time, country-western, hillbilly, bluegrass, blues, gospel, Cajun and zydeco musics.”

Interpreting Slave Life–Nicole Moore, public historian and consultant, hosts this blog on one of the South’s most prickly historical issues–slavery.  She does so without sticking her head in the sand, addressing head-on the issue of slave interpretation at historic sites across the South.

New South Negress–Zandria Robinson’s blog offers a no-holds-barred approach to issues of region, race, and culture. Dr. Robinson is a professor of sociology at the University of Memphis who teaches courses in southern studies and who offers a fresh voice on southern black cultures.  Her observations on southern hip-hop are a must read.

Off the Deaton Path–Stan Deaton, Senior Historian at the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah, is one of the newest to this genre of writing.  You may know him from his Emmy-winning role as host of Today in Georgia History, but he’s recently added blogging to his repertoire. Dr. Deaton’s blog isn’t southern specific; still, his explorations into regional issues (especially as they relate to Georgia) are worth your time.

Red Clay Scholar–Regina Bradley has a Ph.D. in Literature from Florida State University and she writes about hip hop culture, race, and the U.S. South.  She also has a great video interview series called Outkasted Conversations.  You should definitely check it out!

Southern Foodways Alliance–The SFA blog has several contributing authors who offer readers everything from a good southern story to a delicious southern recipe. You’ll learn new twists on southern foodways and discover things about the region you didn’t even know existed.

Talk About the South–Dayne Sherman is a Louisiana native and an associate professor of library science who blogs about southern history, politics, folklore and religion with a particular focus on his home state. And he has the enviable Twitter handle @TweettheSouth.